Saturday, May 07, 2005

I Heart Apostrophes

I don't think there are too many people who would argue that language isn't a good thing. But what happens when that language is so obnoxious that it makes you want to cram a screwdriver into your ear? Like French? There's a little of the Marquis De Sade in all of the Frenchies - there must be if they keep speaking that language. In fact, I would choose self-flagellation over a conversation in French.

If language becomes burdensome or irritating, then we've gone too far. Language is supposed to be a tool, like a hammer, or a backhoe. Language shouldn't annoy and confine us. If I wanted that then I'd climb into a coffin with Andy Dick. There's a delicate balance between being something useful and something cumbersome. And as annoying as the French language is (like a lawnmower over a cat, it sounds), there is linguistic tool that may be even worse:


Punctuation is to linguistics what red-tape is to bureaucracy. Oh sure, there are rules that make sense, but there are also some pretty ridiculous mandates. I understand capitalizing the first word in the sentence, but why do we need to put the period on the inside of a quotation mark? I for one think the period looks better on the outside of the quotations marks. But the rule says you must place a period inside the quotation marks.

But why must I? What would happen if I didn't? I can picture some baffled old lady, calling to her husband, "Harold, Harold! Come quick! Look at what this boy did. He put the period after the quotation mark. I don't understand. Is he ending his sentence? The next word is capitalized, but I - I just don't know! Do you think it could be from one of those strange alphabets, with the dots on top of the letters? I'm so confused!".

Actually, more than anything, I think we should end the quotation with a period, but place the proper punctuation inside the quotation as well. At least when it's a sentence within a sentence, as in the above paragraph - the whole thought starts as "I can picture" and continues on to "I'm so confused!". Why not close that thought with a period? It seems appropriate to me.

But I don't want to get caught up in this one little punctuation debate. There are bigger fish to fry. Like commas!

Not really. The whole point I'm trying to make here is that punctuation is a tool. Or rather, punctuation is a workbench, full of tools, and each particular type of punctuation (capitalization, periods, quotation marks, heck, even tildes!) is just another tool on that bench. They're all appropriate for different things.

And naturally, they all have their perfect uses. If you want to pound in a nail, you don't use a rotary saw. If you want to cut a board, you don't use a hammer. If you want to measure something, you don't use a tape measure.

What? Are you sure? Really... Ok, sorry folks, I stand corrected. My editor tells me you do use a tape measure.

The point is, every tool has a perfect use. But lots of them are really versatile. You can use a hammer to pound nails. You can use it to pull nails. You can use it to smash tiny ants to smithereens. Who hasn't used a hammer to knock a hole in a wall? Or pry things apart? Or grind sleeping pills into cat food?

Punctuation can likewise be flexible. We all use quotation marks when someone is saying something. But we also use them when someone is "saying something". See? There's that flexibility. So why are we confined to rules of punctuation? The purpose of the rules is to help us use language clearly and effectively. But I can do that without following the rules. I am often criticized for my wide use of commas. But they help me time my writing just right, so that the reader can hear the voice in their head. I pay no heed to the rules, because I know what I want my writing to be.

That's not completely true - I do use the rules. All the time really. The rules help us be more efficient with our language. Punctuation helps us make sense of the words we use. And normally, I'm right in harmony with the rules. But I'm not really following them when I use them - I just happen to be in conformity. And when I break the rules - like I did in that last sentence by using a dash to separate a thought, without closing that thought with another dash - I do so in a way that works. I add efficiency to the system.

Universal rules are, by their nature, inflexible. By having rules we make our language rigid and limited. When people decide sentence by sentence how they should use punctuation, our language takes on greater flexibility. And for those who use punctuation effectively and efficiently, I've got no problem deferring to their individual choices.

But when people don't follow the rules and don't use their language effectively, well, then that's even worse than rigidly applying the rules. N U All no wut I M talkin Bout. That instant-messenger, abbreviated, no-rules, non-sensible, net-speak crap that passes for writing in certain circles. It's like the punctuation equivalent of French. The meaning might come across, but prolonged exposure increases the risk of a self-inflicted bullet wound.

The whole point of writing is to convey your message, not make your reader guestimate as to your point. And the rules have it largely right; they're a great guide for getting your message across. But every once in a while, you need an extra comma, or one less dash. So if you need to, go ahead, break the rules. I won't tell, I promise. But breaking the rules only works if you improve the language, so if you do it, you'd better be able to explain your reasons. Because if you can't, then you're no better than the Frenchies.

Alright, I'm out. L8R.

They love my body odor and my bad toupee
They love my stripey shirt and my stupid beret


Anonymous said...

HELL YEAH! I agree 100% on the puctuation issue.

By the way:
French is a dirty language., France is a dirty country, and the French are dirty people. I've been saying that for quite some time. Thanks, Matt, for giving me an outlet to voice that opinion!

Anonymous said...

Oops. Typo! There's a period in there that shouldn't be. I was going to do separate sentances for the first 3, but then combined them as one and forgot to take out the period when I added the comma. My bad.


Anonymous said...

Oh damn. Misspelled punctuation. Well, that's what you get for posting at 4am.

Nate said...

Genius In France.

"Oh, and I forgot to mention,
I am not even welcome at the Star Trek convention".

Notice the placement of the period in the above quote. Like you Matt, I do feel it looks better, and as such, have been using it in this manner for years.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Actually, I'm not even sure that that rule is in fact the rule. I just thought it was, and used it as an example. There are others I could have used I guess. But either way, the rule certainly isn't double punctuation ("...Star Trek convention.".) as I suggest it should be.

joel said...

Non-American English speakers typically do NOT automatically put punctuation inside quotation marks. I, too, think it looks better outside when the situation deems it necessary. As far as I'm concerned, if the Brits think the quotes should be outside—and they created the damn language—then it's good enough for me.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Ok, good to know the rule. Thanks Joel.

I do have to say, however, that I am in NO WAY satisfied defering to the "creators" of the langauge. That presumes falsely that the language can't be improved. And I don't think it's hard to improve on the British version of English. I mean colour? That's pratically French! No, that won't do at all.

Radhika said...

I can't resist adding my non-American perspective.

As far as I'm concerned, what is spoken and written in this country is American and not English. It's a dialect and like other languages (not "langauges" Matt :-)) that have dialects, rules and spellings are subject to modification.

On a completely unrelated topic, I'm waiting for Laura's next post. Melissa (Henning) and I enjoyed the last one.

btnovak said...

...or smashing the hell out of your finger!".

btnovak said...

oh! you mean the post wasn't about proper hammer uses?".